Getting By With A Little Help From Your Friends

Referrals aren’t just about boosting membership. For institutions like Affinity Plus, they’re also a way to benchmark your overall effectiveness as a cooperative.


Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union ($1.7B, St. Paul, MN) is among of the top 100 largest credit unions in the country by membership, with 162,533 consumers calling the cooperative their own. Within that group, Affinity Plus has the second-highest 12-month member growth rate: 12.27% at midyear, according to Callahan & Associates’ Peer-to-Peer analytics. To boot, the credit union’s average member relationship is $17,913. That’s nearly $10,000 more than the average $7,958 relationship posted by credit unions with more than $1 billion in assets.

Affinity Plus members aren’t just looking for a good deal on an auto loan or a CD, although they undoubtedly appreciate one when they get it. Instead, they’re staying with the credit union and growing their relationship — product by product — over time.


So what is the secret to Affinity Plus’s success? According to past CEO Kyle Markland and marketing manager Kate Lee, part of that answer lies in member referrals. On average, 80% of new members at Affinity Plus come in through referrals, and that metric has held steady ever since 2008. Affinity Plus rewards member referrals through its Participation Rewards Program, a member engagement initiative that incentivizes behaviors with points redeemable for free products, lower rates, and charitable donations. And over time, referrals have evolved into a benchmark the credit union uses to determine if it is delivering on its cooperative values.

Here, Markland and Lee explain how the credit union achieved its referral success, why this activity is important to both the member and the institution, and why learning to ask the right questions is a never-ending process.

When did referrals become a priority for Affinity Plus?

Kyle Markland: That started around 2004, and the reason goes back to our basic principles. We’re looking to offer products and services that are fairly priced and delivered by engaged employees. We’re also looking to create an extraordinary experience for the member. If we can offer that, then the natural outcome will be for members to want to refer their family and friends. If we’re doing everything we can do and we’re doing what’s right for our members, then why wouldn’t they want to tell other people about us?

How do you track the likelihood that a member will refer someone to the credit union?

KM: Back in the early 90s we started doing member surveys with a random sample contacted through mailings. Around 2001 we started asking members, “Would you refer someone to Affinity Plus?” We tracked those responses for a number of years and our score was consistently around 99%. So we realized we must be asking the wrong question.


  • Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union
  • HQ: St. Paul, MN
  • Assets: $1.7B
  • Members: 167,033
  • 12-MO Member Growth: 12.27%
  • 12-MO Share Growth: 6.48%
  • 12-MO Loan Growth: 4.06%
  • ROA: 0.57%

Between 2003 and 2004 we changed the question to, “On a scale from one to 10, how likely would you be to refer someone to Affinity Plus?” We were once again scoring right around the nine-mark, so we began questioning the value of how “likely” a member was to do something and decided what we really wanted to know was had they actually referred someone?

Now when a new member joins we still asked the question, “How likely are you to refer?” but we also ask the question, “Were you referred?” and we’ve been tracking the responses that way since about 2006. We continue to keep pushing ourselves to make sure we are always asking the right questions.

How does attracting so many of your new members this way benefit the credit union?

KM: Referrals mean a number of things to us. From the highest level, they validate our service model. If we continue to live our service model, then people are going to continue to refer us. The other thing is — from an organizational perspective — referrals are inexpensive. It’s inexpensive to have organic growth when members are out there advocating for Affinity Plus. Referrals also continually challenge us to do more and better things for our members because those who have been referred have much higher expectations than a non-referred member. They’ll come in and say, “My mom said I’ve got to come here because she experienced this.” That’s their base line expectation.

We’ve found our members don’t just refer one person; they’ll refer tens or hundreds of people. They’ll go back to their family or office and tell everyone, “I just had this great experience at Affinity Plus and you all need to join.” Referrals are becoming like an annuity to us because our members keep referring and referring. They don’t just encourage one person and then stop.

Are there similarities among people who are referred? How are they different from other new members?

KM: New members coming in through referrals have a higher product penetration level than non-referred members. If someone comes in because they saw one of our marketing campaigns, they might come in with two or three products. But a referred member is potentially coming in with more than five products. That puts them on par with a five-year member from a relationship standpoint.

What strategies do you use to encourage staff members to drive up referrals?

KM: All our employees are responsible for referring members, but it is up to the senior team to make sure the employees understand our vision and what we’re trying to do on a higher level. We started an employee program so we could bring in their friends and family, and we’ve challenged our employees to refer a certain amount of new members by the end of the year. This keeps referrals top of mind and our employees are thinking about this in conversations with family and friends.

What have you learned from tracking referrals?

KM: We continually look at why a member would or would not refer. That includes monitoring whether our products are fairly priced and designed to benefit the member first and foremost. We also want to create extraordinary experiences, so we track how members are feeling about the brand and whether they feel like we’re building a relationship with them. For example, say we had the lowest auto rate in town and members came in for the auto loan but it wasn’t an extraordinary experience. They wouldn’t let their family and friends go through that nor would they bring any outside loans over to us.

We also monitor our employee engagement, turnover, and other factors that could affect our culture. We’re asking ourselves, “What is the feel and the vibe at each of our branches?” It’s not any one thing we’re looking at here. It’s not just about what shows up on a survey, because quite frankly, our survey results are off-the-charts strong. Because of that, we could almost be lolled into thinking we don’t need to do much more. But if the member had a great experience in one location or through the call center or through our virtual branch, they now have that expectation every time, in every interaction they have. So it’s up to us to exceed those expectations.